The Fellowship and the Mosque

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I had lunch last week with about 30 women – half of them were Muslims from a nearby mosque and half were members of a nearby Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

The Unitarians were serving the food – chili and stew, green salad and pasta salad, brownies and velvet cake—in the dining room of their fellowship hall. The week before, the Muslims were serving the food – stuffed grape leaves, curried couscous, hummus, and baklava – in the dining room of their mosque.

The two affairs were a version of the ladies who lunch one week at the invitation of the Presbyterians and the next week they’re all attending the cookie sale at the Catholic hall.

The Muslim women, like the rest of us, ranged in age from mid-thirties to a couple of 80-year-olds. Except for one great-grandmother, they were all degreed to some extent – several high school teachers, one pre-school teacher and a couple of nurses; mostly MDs, shrinks and professors.

Some wore jihabs – headscarves that indicate their modesty and their faith in God, whom they call Allah. A recently retired internist, Dr. Sarfraz Islamm, who along with her husband founded the mosque in the area about 20 years ago, told me the wearing of the jihab was like Catholics of old who had to wear a head covering in church. So, those in their fancy or plain, muslin or silk, beaded, embroidered, patterned, colored and multi-colored or stark black scarves draped over their heads and wound loosely around their necks were like me a few decades ago wearing a hat, a mantilla or a scarf to Mass, except that these women who wear the jihab wear it everyplace, not just in the mosque.

Some, however, do not wear a jihab at all, like the retired nurse Pam, who is getting bored with retirement and looking for something interesting to do. Pam sat next to her mother Jassiran, a great-grandmother who did not speak English, at least to me. I was told the gramma was a master embroiderer, although I did not see evidence of that. She was covered thoroughly, so maybe the needlework was underneath the robe. The older woman was 83, smiley and smooth skinned, no sign of a wrinkle yet.

Bina, a 50-something woman who looked 32 and told me she had six children, mentioned that she had never practiced in her discipline –clinical psychology – but would take it up when all the kids were out of college. She speaks Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and English. She told me that a Muslim’s favorite expresson is “InShaAllah” (Arabic: إن شاء الله‎‎, pronounced ʾin shāʾallāh). It means that whatever you’re wishing for, only if Allah wills it will you get it. Bina wore a plain black jihab and a proper-looking, extremely 1950s, dark outfit of blouse, A-line skirt and low heels. She and various members of her family travel at least three times a year to Pakistan for relatives’ weddings or births or graduations.

Next to her sat May, a woman whose son was graduating from the local high school the following Saturday. She wore a shiny black cotton jihab and a form-fitting blouse and skinny jeans. She told me she was supposed to wear loose clothing but she liked fitted clothes, so that’s how she dressed. Her eye makeup was exotic, like Cleopatra’s.

A movie star-looking woman, no jihab — bobbed hair, big earrings — and very tight white jeans, was one of the prettiest women I’ve ever seen having lunch in a church hall. She stood up and said she had to leave early but would like to say a few things. She gave a smooth and loving speech about the delicious Unitarian food, the friendly Unitarians, and then smilingly delivered her exit line: “It is the truth, dear ladies, that we are all sisters under the skin.” And off she tripped on her very high wedgies.

Each of us was asked to get up and tell the group where we came from, what body of water was important to us near our birthplaces, and then we were to push our pin into the appropriate place on the map of the world. All of the Fellowship women were born in the States except one, who was born on one of the islands of Shanghai.

The Muslim women came from Bangladesh, Singapore, Jerusalem, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Cairo, Turkey, Jatai in Brazil (near Brazilia), Guyana, Trinidad, Florida, Ohio, New York state – about a third of the Muslims were born in the USA — and our favorite, the middle-aged, dark-eyed, brown-skinned Muslim wearing a white jihab, a Nashville native with a deeply southern accent.

Because most of the non-Muslim pins were clustered around New England and the Midwest, when it was my turn I said, “I was born and grew up in Iowa, on the Raccoon River that goes into the Des Moines that goes into the Mississippi that goes into the Gulf of Mexico . . . but I was made in California.” That brought a laugh from some and a comment from one of the Pakistani women — “Hmm, I wonder if I was made in Islamabad or Lahore?” I started to put my pin into west central Iowa, when several voices from the crowd cried, “No, do California!” So my pin went into San Bernardino.

The party broke up, we gathered our dishes and I left with an invitation to a high school graduation, Muslim style.

The young graduate’s party turned out to be as American as apple pie, except for the baklava.

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